Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Poet Lyn Lifshin has passed at 77.

  The " Queen" of the small press-- poet Lyn Lifshin has passed at the age of 77.  Lifshin was published in almost every magazine out there including my own.You always knew it was a Lifshin submission because it was an overstuffed envelope with 50 to 100 poems--and many of them were very good. I met Lynn in the North End of Boston at the late Jack Powers' house, and later attended a reading with her and Jon Wieners at the Old West Church in the Beacon Hill area. I interviewed her in a funky little restaurant in the North End in the 90s. She was a very engaging woman, very kind, and wore an in your face red mini-skirt and high heels. She loved talking about her love of dance as well as poetry. Here is the interview I conducted with her--may she rest in peace... The taped interview is held in the Harvard Woodberry Collection...

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dec. 2019 Somerville Poet Laureates reading. Lloyd Schwartz, Gloria Mindock, and Nicole Terez Dutton

Five years ago I founded the Somerville Poet Laureate position with Greg Jenkins and Harris Gardner. This reading took place at the Somerville Public Library. Lloyd Schwartz, our current laureate, and our previous laureates Gloria Mindock and Nicole Terez Dutton read at the event. I was honored to read an introduction, and very grateful to Michael Steffen--who organized the event.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Doug Holder's Poem "Oh, Don't, She Said," put to Dance and Music

A wonderful rendition of Holder's poem about his 93 year old mother, " Oh, Don't, She said..." performed by the textmoves dance collaborative ( Founded by Karen Klein) music by Jennifer Matthews--this was part of the Third Life Choreography Series that was presented in the South End of Boston ( Urbanity Central Studio) in Dec. 2019. The dance has been performed in other venues around Boston.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

REVIEW: Phillip Arnold’s The Natural History of a Blade Dos Madres, 2019

REVIEW: Phillip Arnold’s The Natural History of a Blade
Dos Madres, 2019

Two important things about Philip Arnold’s poems: they are faithfully attentive to etymology, and intently focused on the natural world while not self- consciously showing off his considerable knowledge. His plain subjects—earth and leaves, changing light and shadow, the fall of snow, the death of everything, suggest with exquisite sensitivity our parallel human experience, our struggle, even as his poems enrich the mind with gladness and ease. They do these things with so little showiness that one can easily miss the deep moments as they pass by in modest expression. 
By my sights, Mr Arnold is a poet to watch for—or better, to listen for—as time goes by. His future poems may leave behind some of their delightful but occasionally distracting linguistic eccentricities, stuff that sounds really good or obscure, but that can baffle the earnest reader or cause her to lose her pace or place, or progress. But there will be a Casino Real payoff.  For all of us.
Arnold’s interest in etymology is one of the quiet pleasures of this collection. We learn immediately that the word blade is derived from Middle English, German, and Old English and that it can denote (or suggest) a leaf, a blossom, a blade (knife, spade). It can also bring to mind the voices of other great poets. When we read a single line like “at night/ we become the delicate tongues of bees” and have a sweet sense of Walt Whitman who sits nearby, contemplating “a blade of grass” at the beginning of Leaves of Grass. Or we may be surprised with one of Thomas Hardy’s fine tetrameters rhythms that feels almost uncanny and which is not copying Hardy in the least, but instead riffing on rhythms that conjure his genius. Arnold is on firm, familiar, rich ground in these poems, and he knows it. I take that as a sign of good courage as he grows as an artist.

The title piece of the collection, “The Natural History of a Blade,” is an example of a poem with an original voice and something important to say.  Without ever sounding astonished Arnold astonishes:
The scored sapwood opens the mouth
Of the forest: brown petals open

In a dream of thirst, a throat as wide
As the mid-winter sky.

In “The Appalachian Character for Death,” with its revelation of ravishing, frightening brevity:

“spell out nature’s shorthand /across wet branches” in “winter ink” for the sign of death. Before long, after some thoughtful consideration the poet settles into a Keatsian/Hemingway/Camus musing with:
It isn’t how a life will be erased
That unsettles me, but how hunger grows
While the dying are now on our time.

Our time

In “Black Mountain Point” where the poem’s speaker remembers “to isolate the details / of your silence” (just try it), you have a hint of Arnold’s considerable linguistic powers under the cover of understatement and ambiguity.  Whose silence, we don’t know; and the mental impossibility of isolating the details of a silence?  There are many examples of such skill and innuendo. At the end of this poem his speaker says only “Nothing is sudden.” (Was it Freud who said, “all change is incremental”?)
Of the several remarkable poems in this collection, there is nothing to criticize except perhaps a tendency. Arnold can be thrilling, provocative, and insightful in bringing together the reality of a living nature and the catastrophe of living, for all creatures. At times the level at which he unearths showy or strange uses of language can distract; it can sap the flow of meaning from his more predominant and expression of humble suggestion and modesty.
I believe he has the makings of a great poet.

--Marcia Ross

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Robin Stratton brings a lot to the table with Big Table Publishing

Robin Stratton

Robin Stratton is a dynamo in small press publishing.  But this founder of Big Table Publishing  extends beyond publishing quality books of fiction and poetry. Now based in San Francisco--she remains a big presence in the Boston area literary community. I caught up with Stratton recently to talk about her release of two volumes of  The Very best of Big Table Publishing.

Stratton is the author of four novels, including one which was a National Indie Excellence Book Award finalist (On Air, Mustang Press, 2011), two collections of poetry and short fiction, and a writing guide. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she has been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, Pig in a Poke, Chick Flicks, Up the Staircase, Shoots and Vines, and many others. Since 2004 she has been Acquisitions Editor for Big Table Publishing Company, Senior Editor of Boston Literary Magazine since 2009, and she was Director of the Newton Writing and Publishing Center until she moved from Boston to San Francisco in 2018. Now she lead the popular "Six Feet of Poetry" and "Fiction by the Foot" series. 

You just released the two volumes of  The Very Best of Big Table Publishing. There are a lot of wonderful poets and writers included. Was it hard to narrow it down?

It was, yes. In many case, it was easy to select chapter one of a book, or the Intro… but for the poets, especially, I had to keep choosing which of their poems was not just a favorite, but captured a sense of the poet him or herself, since the hope is that people will read the anthology, fall in love with some of the writing, and then buy a book from that author or poet. Some poets, especially those we worked with on more than one book, had a lot of poems that would be perfect, so I had to go through, say ten… then whittle it down to five… and then down to one or two. Sometimes that was painful, but I obviously had to make room for everyone.

What constitutes for you a " Best Of"' piece of writing?

Over the years, many of the poems, short stories, prologues, or intro chapters have stayed with me, either on an emotional level, because I could totally relate to the theme or character, or because I so admired the literary skill; sometimes I read a poem or micro fiction piece that is a million times better than anything I could ever write, and I find myself wondering if I could ever even come close. When we did Every Day There is Something About Elephants with Timothy Gager, I loved so many of the pieces that I felt like never writing again! At the launch I asked him if he would allow me to read one of them (“Jack” appears in Volume Two) because I was so head over heels in love with (and jealous of) it. So those pieces were where I began, and as I went through all our titles, so many of them made me think, Oh yeah, I forgot how brilliant this is! and I’d grab those, too. And before I knew it, I had two full volumes that represented almost all of our authors. Almost no one got left out, and only one author didn’t want her piece to be included. 

It has been noted that you like writers who are not ashamed to show their vulnerabilities.  Do you think there is a lack of that in contemporary writing?

I try not to judge “contemporary writing” because I understand how society shapes literature and art, and it’s just part of human nature, so if there is a lack of vulnerability out there, I don’t think I would particularly notice. On the other hand, yes, if it’s there, I am drawn to it. Our hottest seller of all time is Fat Girl, Skinny, by Amye Archer, a blazingly raw account of how her self esteem issues and food addiction led to really bad life choices. She didn’t hold back at all, and I found myself admiring her so much for having reached a point in her life where she could just say Here’s what I did, but here’s why I did it, and now that I understand that, I’m not going to do it as much. It’s not as if she now has a talk show where she teaches other people how to live in a constant state of bliss – she still struggles. But in addition to being a fabulous writer, she is a very sweet human who wins you over. She inspired me to start writing poems that exposed my own vulnerabilities… my own serious, crippling self-esteem issues. She made me see that putting that stuff out there doesn’t make it go away – but it empowers you because you found the guts to put it out there. She is my hero. The Prologue to Fat Girl, Skinny kicks off Volume Two.

I also loved the book we did with you, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Poseur, because the whole thing was brilliant, amazing you now making fun of dreamy, idealistic you then… I loved how you told us that when your apartment was excavated because of a fire, you “ran down the stairs in my blue corduroy sports jacket—a slightly irregular affair—from the depths of Filene’s Basement… padded shoulders to bolster my narrow ones and a frail ego—a waxed mustache—with a red scarf around my skinny neck—like a poor man’s ascot” and heard the reporter Kirby Perkins say to someone,  “Look at this fuckin’ character.” Your “271 Newbury Street” was the first piece I chose for the anthology, and it appears in Volume Two.  

I feel you have achieved a real community of writers at Big Table Publishing. How was that brought about?

Thank you for saying that, it’s one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of. When I see on Facebook how many of our Big Table authors have become friends with other Big Table authors, it just makes me feel so good! I think all literary communities naturally come together when they discover that there are others out there who feel the same way about the importance of writing and creating, and have a place to gather. You and I both know how many literary events are not about selling books, but are about sharing our own writing and encouraging others. I feel so fortunate to be part of that, because that is a HUGE thing to be part of. Now more than ever.

There is real sense of eclecticism in the works presented. It can range from the high holy, the rarefied, and the down and dirty.  So you don't favor any school of writing?

Thank you for noticing! Yes, one thing about Big Table is that we’ll consider just about any genre, and I think writers appreciate that. Volume One includes the four Prologues to Still Here Thinking About You (which was our hottest seller before Fat Girl, Skinny.) This book is a compilation of four incredibly talented women writing about their troubling relationships with their mothers, and is told in a loving, tender, powerful way. I always say, “If there is a better Mother’s Day gift than this book, I don’t know about it.” Volume One also includes some macabre from Phil Temples (from Helltown Chronicles) and Michael Keith (a real favorite of mine, “The Smoking Olympics”) a chapter from The Flaws that Bind, Rebecca Leo’s fictionalized autobiography of spousal abuse, and closes with one of my favorites from Richard Fox, the sweetly-sentimental “To Katrina, Wherever You Are xoxo.”

What's in the works?

So glad you asked! We are bringing back Boston Literary Magazine in January, 2020 – in a new format. Instead of making you wait three months for each new issue, we’ll be posting a monthly issue on line, and at the end of each year, our favorites will be compiled into a print volume. Check out our submission guidelines at! We are so excited to be back!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Softly Glowing Exit Signs By Georgia Park

Softly Glowing Exit Signs
By Georgia Park

Softly Glowing Exit Signs is a book of poetry with three longer pieces included: one of non-fiction, one of fiction, and an excerpt taken from Georgia Park’s writing catalog.  The takeaway from reading Softly Glowing Exit Signs, is that the writing is real life, and that overall poetry is real life, and that real life can be measured and unmasked within writing itself. When reading Softly Glowing Exit Signs I felt I was left in a room with Georgia Park, and she is telling me everything with a vulnerability she has not shown many people. It left me needing to read more, or sit and listen because anything else would be unjust.

Ms. Park, a professor at North Shore Community College takes the reader through her life, from the beginning to the end, the years running through the pages. The first poetry section, FIRE!, is not about the recent fire which ran through her apartment and left her homeless, but rather some snippets of her early life totally exposed. There is a Grease Fire where her brother causes the kitchen to ignite and the narrator is left frozen and doesn’t flee until the firefighters arrive, which rings true to some of the other poems where she is left counting daisies in the outfield when a fly ball is coming, or in emotional pain when a piece of glass is imbedded in one’s heal which causes pain and discomfort in every step. These are all metaphors used deftly by Ms. Park. I was stricken by the how real objects or things are personified into visceral feelings….old broken down Volvos that are named, dead fish in a tank, and even a morning cough, are all wounds that are open inside the vision of this work.
As in the opening essay, What Happens in the Maloka, an attempted expulsion and exercising of demons via Ayahuaska, the book also travels down the battleground of spiritual growth and the feeling of being whole.  As there is growth, there are mistakes, and lessons---and sometimes outright defiance of the world we all live in. We see choices made in the poem The Last Reunion, where the poet who felt small, bookish, and invisible in High School is made to feel that way again, by a “now known/famous classmate,”  who is her date for the evening. The poet then hooks up with two of her past bullies at the event to take back some power.
The next section, EVERYBODY RUN!, starts out in Costa Rica where there seems to be an awakening. The poems which take place during times of travel, in general,  show new strength and acceptance with the ability to look back at the past. How Stupid I Was and Lost, looks at past behaviors and the growth into new ones. Other poems in EVERYBODY RUN!, explore Koi Fish as an unexpected solution to decrease angst, and anxiety, and the spiritual serenity written about in the poem Buddha’s Lap:

I am so warm
in the Buddha’s lap the Buddha
and there is buzzing
in my ears
moths and dragonflies
are settling
here and there
my cheek warms
on his stomach
and like a statue
I think of nothing

The section then morphs into some dangerous adventures featuring alcohol and lust-making followed by a repeated theme of therapy, and therapists. The jury is not out on if it is actually helpful or not, but the most hope of all is found in thinking about the possibility of running into a daffodil,
and there’s a little daffodil
I can’t see it, but I know it’s there
its strong, wild and vibrantly yellow
and someday, I’ll pluck it from somewhere

            This section is followed by what is called an excerpt, but what I would call a strong, stand-alone, twelve page story called Hot Pink Iron Lung. It is pure magic, where the metaphors can be believed, and the truth be told in metaphor, much like the underlying technique of the entire book. Poetry books can often be books people read in dribs and drabs, rather than cover-to-cover, but during any time a reader’s brain might need refreshing, I would strongly recommend jumping to Hot Pink Iron Lung immediately.
            The book ends with the final titular section, Softly Glowing Exit Signs, where we do get to the poet’s recent fire. This time, instead of being frozen, the poet continues to live and work wearing smoky clothes, and the bare minimums---the message being, she is stronger, functional, and getting through this. This is reflected upon in the poem, Spiraling Questions where the most treacherous act is What if I recklessly wrote three or four poems a day?  Near the end of the poem there again is growth, and it is shown with such beautiful self-discovery:

                                                   Could I possibly
forget what happened to me (was it me, really, even back then?)
or at least stop talking about it and just go quiet
could mine pass for a brain that’s not short circuiting?

            Perhaps the tenderest piece of Park’s occurs in the poem, Bits of a Butterfly, were vulnerability isn’t hidden or camouflaged, it just is.
I kiss you because I see
softly glowing exit signs
in your eyes

Conclusively, Softly Glowing Exit Signs feels exactly like spending hours, being up all night, with a person bearing their soul, to which all you can be is silent, and listen, and all you can say is, “Thanks for sharing all of this with me.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

If MenThen by Eliza Griswold.


The intersection of style and content in poetry can be powerful and effective — a way poets can help their readers find order amid the chaos of our current era, to paraphrase Robert Frost. The trick is to arrive at the right balance of aesthetic and content. In art, the aesthetic must come first. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold” is, after all, prose. The line works because it builds on an opening metaphor. And because the statement’s succinctness reverberates with us (still) in an age of “alternative facts” and “truthiness” — when any general pronouncement is suspect. Eliza Griswold walks this tightrope, sometimes successfully, other times, not. But because her poems often take place in war zones, she’s always provocative — even when she is tendentious.
If Men Then is Griswold’s third book of poetry. She is well-known for her nonfiction. Her book Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction this year. She has also written about Afghanistan, The Kurds, Christianity and Islam, Ethiopia, etc. In short, she is a very interesting, and engaged, person.
Here’s a short poem of hers called “Reflection” that appeared in The New Yorker:
I is a lion
who snarls
at the lion
in the water
who snarls.
How’s that for a fresh perspective? In just a few lines it captures an empowered woman’s point of view yet, though she snarls, she snarls at her own image. It’s kind of an anti-narcissus poem. She is no flower. The use of the first person to explore a split identity fits these self-involved times of ours. Just be yourself, we are told, an army of one, take the journey of self-discovery (along with countless other invitations for omphaloskepsis). Is it any surprise that many of us today feel a certain sense of dislocation? Griswold examines this perspective in a number of poems. Here is another short one entitled “Green”:
I shouldered her hobo sorrow and soldiered on.
She was warden of an angry garden,
guarding against what hoped to grow.
The bitter bud that never opens hardens.
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” asked Antonio Machado. Griswold answers the question, again capturing our Weltanshauung. We are all a little angry these days, just ask Elizabeth Warren. The poetry here is dense, alliterative, and assonant, with internal and end-stopped rhymes. The aesthetic reinforces the content.
Griswold opens the book with a “Prayer”:
What can we offer the child
at the border: a river of shoes,
her coat stitched with coins,
her father killed for his teeth,
her mother, sewing her
daughter’s future into a hem.
In this poem Griswold takes on the heart-wrenching problem of undocumented children crossing the border. The problems immigrants encounter here in the U.S., and in other nations around in the world, is an increasingly tragic concern.  In some ways, poetry, making use of imagery and metaphor, is able to express more of the despair than newspaper reports. Here is the last stanza:
Nothing is what we can offer.
The child died years ago.
Except practice a finer caliber of kindness
to the stranger rather than wield
this burden of self, this harriedness.
The process of humility involves less us.
Griswold’s point of view rings true, but in the last line she has crossed a Rubicon from poetry into statement. She is telling us directly how we should feel and, because of that, the verse becomes less effective.
Another poem “Good-bye Mullah Omar,” takes place in Afghanistan. It begins: “Charlie says when Afghan men get together, / the number of eyes is always odd.” Griswold’s unique perspective — because she has lived in a place so few of us will ever go — combines reporting with a poet’s eye. And that makes her perspective very compelling. Although, when she ends the poem with the question (“Where are your scars now, wonderboys?”)  the devolution into prose pops up again.
“Ruins” manages to balance on the tightrope pretty well.
A spring day comes through Trastevere.
A nun in turquoise sneakers
contemplates the stairs.
Every hard bulb stirs.
The egg in our chest cracks
against our will.
The dead man on the Congo road
was missing an ear,
which had been eaten
or someone was wearing
it around his neck.
The dead man looked like this, no, that.
Here’s a flock of tourists
In matching canvas hats.
We’re healing by mistake.
Rome is also built on ruins.
In this poem, Griswold puts her finger on a number of the problems of our time. The disparities between the rich tourists and the poor immigrants, the endemic violence in certain regions, our attempts to take it all in. The end-stopped rhymes and clashing images evoke a sense of disconnection. Once again, the poem ends better in the penultimate line.

The title If Men, Then is a response to the Wallace Stevens poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico,” which begins: “Twenty men crossing a bridge/ Into a village/ Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges / Into twenty villages.” The first poem in Griswold’s book, “Prelude to a Massacre,” starts “Twenty men crossing a bridge, / into a village, / is not a metaphor/ but prelude to a massacre.” Griswold is pointing out that, in Afghanistan, metaphors have little to do with survival in a multi-generational war.
Not all is earnest here, but Griswold’s sense of humor is uneven — it comes across most successfully in “Reflection.” She includes a sequence of poems about Italy that are not as involving as those set in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, If Men, Then is well worth reading by those who believe that poetry has something to tell us about our many internal and external conflicts.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Zvi Sesling’s Simple Game, Baseball Poems, published by Presa Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

Zvi Sesling’s Simple Game, Baseball Poems, published by Pressa Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            Put me in Coach, I’m ready to play today
            Look at me, I can be Centerfield
                                                                        --John Fogarty, “Centerfield”

            What is Baseball? It’s a sport, of course, but it’s more than just that. It’s not a religion, but it’s close. It’s called America’s pastime, but its time is more than simply the “past”—baseball encompasses past, present, future in a way that makes the passing of time irrelevant. Which isn’t to say that baseball doesn’t live in its moments—in fact, it’s the moments that snag in our memory—a hit, a catch, a pitch, a play at the plate, an argument with an umpire, a portrait on a baseball card.

            On one level, each of us lives within our own version of what the game means. For some of us, there are on field memories: I, like the singer in John Fogarty’s song, played centerfield; after fifty years my mind and body remember chasing down and gloving certain fly balls as if they’d just been struck. But just as firm in my memory are games I’ve experienced only as a fan: games I’ve sat through on the edge of my seat, rooting for my team with a combination of superstition and prayer. And then there’s the baseball I know through its lore—anecdotes and personalities I’ve read or been told about. So, though my idea of “baseball” is mine and mine alone, the scope of baseball is so universal that I and every other true baseball fan can recognize and take pleasure in the individual baseball world of another, especially when that private world is rendered as vividly and joyfully as Zvi A. Sesling renders his in Simple Games, his chapbook of baseball poems.

            Poetry is perfect for baseball: the form is meant to express the ineffable. Through their poems, writers strive to make their individual experiences available to the reader, and, to fans of the sport, the language of baseball is a perfect conduit for such sharing.

In Sesling’s first poem, “Sibby Sisti,” he describes his “first baseball hero,” a player whose name, to Sesling represented “a poetic sound, an alliteration.” Before reading this poem, I’d never heard of this player. But, as a baseball fan, I can identify with the attachment—I have my own cache of favorite players, and Sesling taps into my definition of what “favorite” means. But his descriptions of this and other players, sites, and events do more than just connect me to past pleasures; the beauty of these poems, and of baseball, is that the lore actually expands my own experience. For example, I’d heard of Warren Spahn, but, after reading Sesling’s poem, “Warren’s Arm,” I can now picture him, as he “let’s the ball go like a prisoner escaping/ from jail, fast and low.”  I learn about Spahn’s pitching motion, his uniform, his number, and his statistics—because, after all, one of the threads that connects baseball fans as both a private and universal phenomenon is its numbers.

            Through Sesling’s memory, skill, and generous spirit, my own world of baseball now includes Sam the Jet, the first black player in Boston, former MVP Bob Eliot, and Rabbit Maranville. And while, as a Yankee fan, I’m well acquainted with Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Sesling’s poem about the feat, “Larsen’s No-No” fills in details with the names of no less than twelve participants in that contest in  twenty-one lines. But more than just contributing to the totality of my baseball world, Sesling’s poems vitalize parallel associations. Both “Earl of Snohomish” and “Mr. Team” portray their subjects on their baseball cards. Although I never knew these players, Sesling’s descriptions, such as of Bob Eliot posed “on one knee/ in the on-deck circle leaning on his bat/ not in prayer, but studying the pitcher/ waiting to hit” evoke memories of my own card collections— of my personal favorites and of the card-flipping games I played as a ten-year old on the school playground.

            Some of Sesling’s poems lament baseball’s darker moments, such as “Kenesaw’s Revenge,” which discusses the commissioner’s decision to void a female player’s contract and a 1952 decision that “strikes out women by banning/ them completely from pro ball.” In “Black Sox,” Sesling describes a gambler in the stands, “looking every bit a rich dandy . . . /waving like he is drowning” during baseball’s most infamous cheating scandal. It is clear that the poet feels that these events intrude on the purity of the game he loves so dearly. But even these poems expand beyond the history they depict, leading me to reflect upon other times the sport has disappointed its fans, such as the decade during which the rise in performance enhancing drugs forced asterisks upon some of baseball’s most revered records.

            Zvi Sesling in Simple Game often uses baseball as a lens through which to revisit important moments of his life, such as in the poem “The First Girl I Kissed,” which equates his memory of that event with one of the sports well known tragedies. When pitcher Herb Score’s career was ended by a line drive, “just as suddenly as the shot that/ takes out Score, I break up with the girl of the first kiss.” Eventually, Sesling is “[f]orced to recover in a new town with a new girlfriend/ While the Indians pursue their first World Series win since 1948.” The use of baseball history as the palimpsest upon which to transcribe our most enduring memories is a phenomenon shared by all true fans of the game. 
            “A poem,” Archibald MacLeish writes in “Ars Poetica,” “must not mean/ But be.”  Zvi Sesling in Simple Game transforms his life experience with baseball into poetry; his poems not only afford us entry into his world of Baseball, they lead us to a fresh assessment of our own memories. John Fogarty in his song “Centerfield” doesn’t write, “Look at me, I can play centerfield”—it’s “I can be centerfield.” Because when we are part of this game, we become it: Sesling’s baseball is my baseball and is the baseball of all fans who have surrendered themselves to this game. The memories we inhabit are conjoined, and though we may seem to live and die for particular teams, it’s really one perpetual, timeless game that defines our world.

Monday, November 18, 2019

THE CHIMERAS Written by Gérard de Nerval Translated by Henry Weinfield Illustrated by Douglas Kinsey

Review by Ravi Teja Yelamanchili

            THE CHIMERAS written by Gérard de Nerval, was originally published in 1854 in French. 
 Though the collection contains only eight poems, it is a work of monumental genius.THECHIMERAS  It is a vision of unfettered idealism, madness, hope, and despair—that blossoms into a beautiful sonnet sermon Nerval calls ‘Golden Verses’.

On page 21, Nerval writes: “This sublime, insensate madman, it was he, one could be sure, / This Icarus forgotten who again began to soar”. The myth of Icarus and Daedalus is a cautionary tale. It is the story of a son who ignores his father’s wisdom and flies to the sun—though he knew the wax would melt from his wings, and the ocean would devour him. For Nerval characters like Icarus are heroes— martyrs who died in the pursuit of idealism and truth. Nerval places figures like Icarus alongside Christ and other prophets from often incongruous religions and myths. Henry Weinfield’s brilliant English translation and Douglas Kinsey’s beautiful illustrations add rich layers and levels of depth to this collection.

Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s THE CHIMERAS, was my first time reading Nerval. When I first saw Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s translation I was immediately drawn to the book’s cover art. It has an illustration of a chimera on it. On the body of the chimera are white lines, which reminded me of a cave painting. I randomly flipped the book open to page 11 to a poem titled ‘Artemis’, and saw the lines:

“White roses fall! Profanation to our gods:
Fall, white phantoms, from your skies, scorched abodes:
—The saint of the abyss is more saintly to my eyes.”

The moment I read those lines I was mesmerized, and looked Nerval up on Google, to learn that he that was one of the great giants of French Romanticism. There are many books out there, and we all have only so much time to read. I only spend time reading books that expose me to perspectives and ideas that challenge my own, teach me valuable skills, and or make me a better person. Had any one of the three artists not done exceptional work I doubt I would have continued reading this book. Nerval and Weinfield have created poetry that is exceptionally beautiful and elegant. The poetry is complex and forces the reader to confront the inescapable darkness and egocentrism prevalent at the core of human nature.

            Traditionally, the sonnet was a form used to write love poems—and most sonnets were written in praise of a woman and or her beauty. THE CHIMERAS is a sonnet sequence, where the ‘truth’ is personified, and praised in verse—in Greek mythology, the chimera is a female. In THE CHIMERAS the ‘truth’ that Nerval pines after takes on the form of a chimera: many headed, strange bodied, etc— each sonnet in the sequence forming one of the parts of the chimera. Since each individual sonnet is a crossbreeding of various religions, and myths— each individual sonnet can also be thought of as a chimera as well.

            Growing up I was raised in a bilingual family, and I never really thought too much about what an accent meant until recently. An accent is the superpositioning of one language and by extension one culture on another. Many immigrant families, like my own, often find themselves negotiating and bartering two different cultures. The task of the translator is similar to the aforementioned phenomenon—there is a constant negotiation between different languages and the cultures. It is particularly complex when translating work from a different time and poetic tradition.
            Translating between French and English is particularly interesting because English is influenced heavily by French and German. I have read before that the English of the ‘upper class’ was derived more heavily from French, while the English of the lower classes was derived more heavily from German. When reading a French to English translation, I would expect to find these linguistic patterns also present in the resulting translated work, and often do. Interestingly, Weinfield’s translation reads more like the translation of a 1900’s-1950’s Greek Myth or Epic, than a French poem. After reading Weinfield’s translation of THE CHIMERAS, I decided to read several other translations of THE CHIMERAS as well.

Other translations of THE CHIMERAS read more like a French to English translation, the expected linguistic patterns finding their way into the poetry. Weinfield’s careful word selection ensures that that the poetry has a unique ‘mythical’ tone to it. I would also argue that it is the most faithful translation of THE CHIMERAS I have read so far. Translating work this faithfully takes great skill. In the poem “Myrtho”, Nerval’s writes “À ton front inondé des clartés d'Orient,”. Weinfield’s translation reads, “Your forehead flooded by the Orient’s bright rays”. Weinfield uses the uses the word “Orient” while other translators refrain from using it, and instead write “morning light”, or “radiance of the East”. The reference to Asia is lost when d’Orient is translated to “morning light” or “radiance of the East”.

 If the word orient wasn’t capitalized it would simply mean “situated in or belonging to the East”— referring to the position of the morning sun. Capitalizing the word ‘Orient’ carries a more Eurocentric reference to Asia. Nerval wrote THE CHIMERAS, in the 1850’s in the heart of European Imperialism. Around this time a great deal of Eastern scripture and literature was being translated by the likes of Ralph T. H. Griffith, Max Muller, Karl Friedrich Neumann, and etc. The word ‘Orient’ plays a critical role in THE CHIMERAS, since the book draws from many myths and scriptures. Additionally, the Romanticist movement as whole was heavily influenced by Eastern scripture and philosophy—so, changing the word Orient drastically alters the meaning and decontextualizes of the poem.

            In mythology Myrto is a Maenad, or a female follower of Dionysus. Many translators change the name Iacchus to Bacchus, possibly to make the poem more accessible to the reader. Though even in mythology Bacchus is closely associated with Iacchus, they are not one and the same. Iacchus is a minor god belonging to an agrarian cult, associated with Demeter and Persephone; while Bacchus has been associated with several different cults such as the hedonistic cult of Bacchus. Demeter and Persephone play an important role in explaining the natural cycles of the world, life, and death; while the cult of Bacchus was associated more so with sensual pleasures. Translating Iacchus into the Bacchus completely strips the poem of its Eleusian Mysteries (the agrarian cult) context. In the third verse of the poem “Myrtho”, Weinfield’s translation reads “the volcano comes alive” while others translated to “the volcano boiled up again”, and “I know why that volcano is aflame”. A characteristic of many myths is the personification of natural phenomenon. In a poem that draws very heavily on Greek Mythology, there is mountain of difference between saying the “volcano is alive”, and “the volcano boiled up again”. While the word alive is a personification of a natural event, the latter are both retellings of an event. Myths serve many purposes—retelling events is one of them, but another is explaining why they happened. If a child were to ask, “why is there lava everywhere?”, “it boiled up again” does not adequately answer why. On the other hand, “it came alive”, or “it was sleeping, and now it is awake” not only answers what, but also provides a more satiating answer to why something happened the way it did.  Additionally, using the word ‘alive’ as opposed to ‘boiled up again’ does a better job of tying back into the narrative of Demeter and Persephone, the seasons, life and death, etc.

            Several years back when I was discussing the work of Rabindranath Tagore with one of my Bengali friends, they explained to me that Bengali is a very flowery language. He had me listen to Tagore in Bengali, to get a better understanding of what the poem would have sounded like in its original language.  I don’t speak French, so to get a better sense of what Nerval’s work sounds like, I listened to several French readings of his poetry. When I compared Weinfield’s translations with the translations of other English translators I found that Weinfield’s was very close to Nerval’s original sound. Weinfield is an accomplished poet with a great ear and captures Nerval’s melodies with precision. Many poetry translators, especially with rhyming poetry, will try to force rhymes just to maintain form—resulting in clunky writing. Weinfield’s translation is very elegant—the rhymes and sounds, remarkably close to Nerval’s.

Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s project is unlike any other take on THE CHIMERAS: each of Nerval’s sonnets are accompanied by one of the Kinsey’s illustrations.  Each of the pieces are stylistically very different. The illustration that goes alongside ‘Myrtho’ on page 3 looks a bit like a Renaissance painting, while the painting on page 18 has a post-Impressionist feel to it. However, each of the paintings are a blending of many different styles—and any attempts at categorizing them would be reductionist and do Kinsey’s work little justice. The artwork influences the poems in a very interesting way. I find visual arts to be more accessible to my eye than words and found myself first looking at the paintings, then reading the poetry. Furthermore, since the paintings were laid out on the left side of the book as opposed to the right side—I found myself taking a quick glimpse of Kinsey’s art before reading each of the lines.

When we read English, most of us, read from the left side to the right side of the page. In poetry the end of each line functions as a soft pause, or a fractional comma or period. When the paintings are laid out on the left side of the manuscript, the reader’s eyes instinctually start on the left side and moves to the right again, where it stops. Then it goes back to the left side where it catches a glimpse of Kinsey’s painting before the next line is read. This to me was a bit like going to a museum looking at a work of art, and then reading the label underneath it. However, since the artwork and the sonnets were given equal page economy, the reader looks at the artwork as they read the poems. Nerval’s sonnets on their own are extremely complex and often the emotional power of the poems is muzzled by the intellectual. Kinsey’s illustrations are abstract and use bold color choices and patterns— this helps draw the emotions out of the poems, while at the same time not forcing interpretation on the reader.

            In summation, I would like to thank Weinfield and Kinsey for the work they have done. Had it not been for them, I would have never read Nerval’s magnificent poetry. Thank you both for your remarkable work!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Keith Moul’s The Journal

Keith Moul’s The Journal, published by Duck Lake Books, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            “Like so many other men of his generation, the war was transformative, making him almost mute on the subject,” writes Keith Moul of his father, a veteran of World War II, in Moul’s foreword to his poetry chapbook The Journal. My own father was of this generation, and, like Moul and many other children of these soldiers, my brothers and I grew up in an atmosphere largely defined by his silence. We the nearness of history—the war was less than a decade distant. We played with our toy guns and plastic soldiers, fought backyard battles, and vanquished imaginary enemies. But though we were aware that our parent was a human artifact of that “transformative” time, something about the cocoon of silence around my father, a silence that seemed nurtured by our mother, kept us from satisfying our curiosities about the war. Passively, we concluded that this was what all men—all fathers—were like. We saw so many of them at family and social gatherings, at church, working on our cars and plumbing, standing behind the counters of our hardware and shoe stores.

            The thing about monuments is that it becomes easy to believe that they are stone all the way through, and so my brothers remained distant from my father until his death. As the youngest, maybe because I was furthest from the defining conflict, maybe because something in my own personality allowed me to see through the chinks in my father’s rusting armor, I found a softer parent. Maybe I created him myself. We became friends, my father and I, but never companions—I learned no more about the war and what it had done to him than had my siblings.    

            Keith Moul, a fellow child of a soldier, was gifted late in life with a chance to peek into the inner life of a man whose life experiences had made him hard to know. His father, he discovers, had kept a journal for a short time while serving as a radar man on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific at the height of the war. Moul’s mother had held onto that diary for years after his father’s death, passed the journal on to Moul’s brother shortly before her own, and his brother gave it to him. As Moul writes in “Silent Man,” “His silence lasted emptied almost fifty years . . . / I got the journal on her death. I never knew/ his eloquence, his effort to write to her his love,/ his sifting of boogies through tedium, the carrier/ tracing burial sites over the ever-swirling waves.”

            And thus, in this chapbook, The Journal, the reader participates in Moul’s creation of links to a man long dead, to an experience his father kept to himself for “almost fifty years.” Like an archaeologist, the poet uses the fragments his father leaves to reconstruct an inner life that, had they not been discovered, would have remained forever buried: Moul provides, in each of his pieces, first his father’s journal entry, followed by a poem extrapolated from the detailed experience. For example, in “The Axis,” we learn from the senior Moul’s entry of March 26, 1944, this seemingly mundane fact: “Crossed the equator again yesterday. This makes it about 15 times I have been across it.” From this information son Keith hypothesizes about the inventorying—of trips, of planes, of mines and bombs—that fill his father’s journal: “As it happened, even if asleep at the crossing, he counted it;/ he captured it as an electric surge, extending life, running life/ as if attached to a long umbilical, as if overruling death’s generator.”

            In “Darling Honey,” Moul quotes an entry from his father’s journal intended to explain to the poet’s mother why there may have been a lapse in his letters home: “I was scared a few days, and when you get that way, you just can’t write, honey.” The son’s poem intuits his father’s feelings: “Fear in battle . . . the momentary scare of known death/ on the deck, or unknown death waiting for its moment/ . . . that reaper hanging above every breath . . ./ This is why, dear, another letter may have failed,/ may have given you the wrong impression of both me, now, and my universe of war.”

            But Keith Moul’s poems in The Journal are more than an explanation or expansion of his father’s wartime journal entries; they are also more than simple acts of ventriloquism. Because of the son’s enrichment of the journal through his poetry, the father is both memorialized and resurrected. The relationship between entry and poem is both symbiotic and synergistic: the pair becomes a unit that not only recreates the father’s past war experience, but fills a void in the poet’s understanding of his father’s silence. The poem “The Fact of Circling Light,” poses the question, “And what of coming generations amassing questions,/some risking long stifled memory?” The answers to Moul writes are “too often wide of the grisly mark, too grisly to confront.” The truth, however, is that by inhabiting his father’s wartime experience, the son has forged both a truce and truth from that silence. As Wordsworth states in the opening lines of his “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality,” “the child is father of the man.” In a very real sense, Moul himself in his poems has created the father he needed and missed from his father’s brief journal entries. And through these poems, I find that I myself gain insight into my own soldier-father’s silences.